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Culture

On Biren's passing

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The deeply sad passing of Biren De, one of India's great artists who represented the best of aesthetic originality, rare energy and stubborn integrity, once again brings home so many related thoughts.

Since my first meetings with the modern masters of Indian art during 1994-95, every year a living creative force has passed into a page or chapter of the historical archives. Barwe, Hebbar, Gaitonde, Paritosh Sen, Shyamal Dutta Ray, Swaminathan, Souza, Santosh, B C Sanyal, Devayani Krishna, Gade, Bakre, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Meera Mukherjee, Ram Gopal Vijaiwargiya, Adimoolam, Somnath Hore, Manjit Bawa, Tyeb Mehta, Serbjeet Singh and now Biren, have all passed on, swiftly closing the curtains on generations of Indian modernism. Yet, even as this storehouse of knowledge and brilliance dissolves, hopefully their creative values will be shared with millions in the decades to come.

With all, for some strange reason or the other, I shared brief, loving words during their last days. Their gentleness, though Souza's black humour was rarely seen as gentle by most;their undying goodness;their quiet stubborn integrity, best epitomised by Biren, Tyeb, Bakre and Serbjeet;and their eternal love of creativity, will hopefully continue to inspire generations to come.

Yet, instantly, my dark side reminds me how fragile our understanding of history is, how disrespectful and negligent we are in respecting the merit and decency of others. More than that, how weak we are as a contemporary nation and people in institutionalising the systems which will not allow us to forget the respect deserved by great, creative minds.

Today, as Indian civilisation seeks an original developmental path, it is an absolute shame that she continues to disrespect and neglect her core competence - the world's largest, most diverse, most joyously creative cultural heritage and cultural traditions spanning over 5, 000 years. Most of the objects still lie rotting in the black economy, are absent from educational curricula in any meaningful manner or buried under governmental neglect, archaic legislation and public insensitivity.

If a few of us had not taken on the task of placing systematic financial value on the art object, the little excitement which we today see for the modern and contemporary arts would also be missing. They would struggle for life as do our ancient and medieval antiquities, popular, folk and tribal arts. That monetary success leads to greater awareness, potential love and participation should not surprise any of us, though it may hurt and disturb.

Lakshmi and Saraswati are still seen to live in different worlds. When bridging attempts are made, much damage and hypocrisy comes to fly. A decade of work slips by in the blink of an eye. Yet a decade is the minimum required to build any material platform of credibility which sustains an outreach to the public and their education. Today, barely a handful of private sector institutions have sustained this journey to the scale of the task before us. Even fewer aspire to a public-sector sense of duty. Naturally, the public sector has little desire to help the private sector in terms of equality and mutual trust. Equally, the private sector has little patience or abilities in trying to help the public sector crawl out from under their burdens and pressures. Today's youngster can barely visualise a life dedicated to a single task for over two decades, yet that is the need of the moment, as it has always been.

Thus, the so-called private-public partnership flounders. As long as this continues, all our heritage, man-made and natural, will continue to die. The task for humans regarding preservation and benign utilisation is vast enough. To have operational divisions, such as private and public, only undermines the battle.

It is here that the life of a great artist takes on greater institutional meaning. Few understand that it takes over forty years of daily due diligence for an artist to become a 'signature', hence significant. A Souza or Tyeb sustained over fifty years of tireless and fearless creativity. They were taken to task daily in exhibitions, newspapers, journals and museums, before humanity decided to respect the signature as something original, something which signifies that their vision and expression saw the world uniquely, and that this unique vision needs to be institutionalised once the living force passes on. It is this respect by humanity for the best in itself which creates the core for value. It is this archival and historical value which the market tries to transform into financial value. The fairness of valuations thus rests only on knowing and respecting history.

Yet, how many people today even know the A of Biren De's journey, a sixty-year creative heritage. The intense struggle to delve into the nature of the union between man and woman, to grasp the link between man-woman with the larger cosmos and its energy, to use this inner journey to clarify the larger philosophical traditions which ancient tantric symbolism and philosophies had equally studied, to clarify and develop a unique imagery for energy, rooted as much in the ancient struggles of the spirit as in the contemporary questions of what am I to do with my time, and in the process leaving behind signs to re-energise us.

Amid the huge burden of seeing daily death and disrespect for life we have become a bit immune and cynical to this energy, yet more than ever it is imperative that we respect the creation of history which is merited, and so naturally set up clear standards of what constitutes merit and how it will be protected long after we all pass on. Let us not wait for another Biren De to pass before pushing into overdrive our efforts to rebuild the systems which disseminate knowledge and wisdom with love and joy.

(The writer is the chairman of Osian's)

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